An Oxford Experience: Making Testimony Relevant at Home and Abroad

Mon, 04/04/2016 - 10:15am

While the average USC student was dragging themselves out of bed to make it to their first class after Spring Break, I was--rather jet-lagged--sitting in an 800 year old room cloaked in paintings of old intellectuals and world renowned writers in a tiny corridor of Hertford College at Oxford University, wondering how on Earth I could be so lucky to miss a week of school to hang out at one of the oldest, most prestigious centers of learning in the history of Western Civilization.

I had the honor of attending a workshop called “Human Rights in and after Conflict” at the Oxford Institute for Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict, which was made possible by Professor Lyn Boyd Judson from the USC Levan Institute for Humanities and Ethics. Aside from the nine other brilliant students who attended from USC, we were joined by student groups from various other U.S. universities such as Georgetown, the University of Oregon and the University of Houston, to name a few.

Hertford College courtyard Hertford College courtyard

After various cups of coffee--since tea just wouldn’t cut it--and a hearty English breakfast to give us fuel for a long day of academic conversation, we began our days with various engaging lectures given by the lively Dr. Hugo Slim, a leading international academic in humanitarian studies and Senior Research Fellow at the Oxford Institute for Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict (ELAC). Each morning, he gave us a run-through on international legal principles, international humanitarian law, and peace-building dynamics and explained the function of humanitarian organizations. In those same lectures, he forced us to question every notion we had about these big lofty ideas and encouraged our honest critique. I think it gave us all a sense of liberty and we knew from that moment we could actually engage with each other freely.

During the afternoon, guest lecturers came to share some their research findings, or to educate us about historical social movements, such as non-violent peace movements in the U.S. and India.

An incredible woman, Zuhal Sultan, came in one afternoon to tell us the story about how she founded the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq at the age of 17, in the midst of the American invasion and the ongoing instability that has rocked the country since 2003. Her determination to encourage creativity, unity and talent in the face of war and displacement is unbelievable. One evening we watched as Hugo Slim and Ibrahim Gassama, the Frank Nash Professor of Law at the University of Oregon, debated about the value and legacy of the human rights agenda and the institutions that propagate these values around the world. I think this debate challenged us all profoundly, because we had to think about where our underlying understanding of rights come from, and whether or not they’re  just a Western construction we’ve imposed on the world. The best part was: these crazy adults listened, spoke and argued with each of us as their equals, and this gave us a freedom of expression we hadn’t really enjoyed before.

We watched a heart-wrenching yet inspiring film called “Pray the Devil Back to Hell”, which is about a group of Christian and Muslim women who came together to end the bloody Liberian civil war through non-violent peaceful demonstrations, and a lot of character! The next morning we worked in groups to dissect the peace agreement made possible by the efforts of these peace warriors. The conference ended with a bang when Asma Awan, a humanitarian worker from the International Committee of the Red Cross, shared with us her experience doing field work in places like Libya, Sri Lanka and South Sudan. She disclosed her biggest fears, failures, joys and accomplishments and let us ask her a million and one questions about what it’s like to live on the brink of death and disease on an hourly basis.

USC Oxford Consortium 2016 group - Marina center. USC Oxford Consortium 2016 group - Marina center.

The entire week, however, we were warned about a looming presentation we would have to give with our assigned ‘interest’ groups. That was all they told us-- and I only knew my group was titled ‘refugees’. While sitting in session after session hashing out themes like war, displacement, and human rights, I couldn’t help but think of all the hours I’ve spent at the USC Shoah Foundation watching testimony. I thought about how most survivors of genocide were refugees at some point in their journey to safety, and I reflected on how over the last year I’ve become attached to certain survivors and their testimonies. I told my group about my intentions to use testimony in my portion of the presentation, and they gave me the go ahead. I decided to use a quote from Czech Holocaust survivor Norma Dimitry’s testimony:

“In Poland it was another story. It was hard, it was very hard. We remained from 1945 to 1946. And then we start going, and my son was born. I didn't want to have my child in Poland. We had to cross illegally the border. So I was going a pregnant woman. So I crossed the border from Poland to Czechoslovakia. They couldn't take us one night. We had to go another night because the guards were not ready to let us through. They had to be bribed. Then we had to up a very high hill and I couldn't, I was eight months pregnant.”  - Norma Dimitry, Holocaust Survivor

It was striking to me how a Syrian woman looking for refuge in Europe this past summer could have said these same words. I realized how testimony has preserved the words and gestures of individuals whose experiences can be mirrored or contrasted with the experiences of others coming from very different conflicts at different points in history, yet they embody the same sufferings and in this case, occupy the same physical space geographically. It was really quite exciting for me to share these quotes and draw on these human connections.  I realized how helpful testimony can be in encouraging and cultivating empathy towards others, and I’m in awe at how it can truly transcend time and place.

I may not have been in Cabo or Cancun soaking up the sun during my extended #SpringBreak2K16, but I was in an incredible learning environment with brilliant and motivated peers and educators, soaking up different perspectives and ideas that altogether culminated into an invaluable experience that I will cherish today and every day.

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Norma Dimitry on being a refugee

Testimony clip of Norma Dimitry was subtitled into Czech, for a presentation in Czech Republic on teaching about the refugee crisis with testimony.

clip of Norma Dimitry’s testimony. The clip is subtitled into Czech, just in case some of my fellow Czechs were interested in learning more about the last time our country provided at least a safe transit route if not a safe haven to a mass of people. - See more at:


Marina Kay